Tellem client Antawn Jamison of the Cleveland Cavaliers pulls in a rebound. Tellem has represented numerous NBA and Major League Baseball clients. (Associated Press)
In 1964, when Earl Wilson was negotiating his contract with the Boston Red Sox, he turned for help to attorney Bob Woolf, who previously had represented him following a car accident. But Wilson wasn't permitted to have his agent with him at the negotiating table; he would call Woolf from a nearby pay phone when he needed advice.
"It was not until the late '60s that the profession of sports agent became something people could do," Clark says. "That doesn't mean athletes didn't have sports agents; there just wasn't an established field. People might have their dad or a lawyer friend help them with the contract—as in, 'Hey, could you look at this for me?' But before the late '60s and union collective bargaining, there wasn't much negotiating. A team offered you a contract, and you just took it—or not."
A former Detroit Tigers player later played a role in determining Tellem's first career steps. As he was researching firms in his 2L year, he discovered that Los Angeles–based Manatt, Phelps, Rothenberg & Tunney had a strong presence in Democratic Party politics, ties to Michigan through then-partner Rothenberg, and, most important, a connection to his childhood hero, Tigers first baseman Hank Greenberg, whose son Steve practiced sports law at the Manatt firm.
"To my grandparents, Hank Greenberg was a very important figure in the
'30s and '40s," Tellem says. "He was a source of Jewish pride for me, and
so, naturally, Steve's involvement in the firm piqued my interest. During my [internship] interview, I was offered a job. I was so excited that I accepted on the spot. When I told my parents in Philly that I was moving to L.A., they were in shock. To allay their fears, I said, 'The firm represents Barbra Streisand, and Hank Greenberg's son works there.' Then, suddenly, everything was okay."
After that summer, Tellem was back at Michigan for his final year of law school, in 1979, when he got his first chance to recruit an athlete: Rick Leach, the Michigan All-American in football and baseball. "I met with him, met with his family, and tried to convince them to go with our firm," Tellem recalls. "They didn't, but I got a taste of what it was like to recruit an athlete."
Out of college, he took a job at Manatt, a decision helped along by its location in L.A. His future wife, Nancy—who years later would become president of CBS Entertainment—was a California native. After a few years of tax and litigation work, he helped the firm pick up its first athlete-clients, baseball players met at spring training camps. In the late '80s, Tellem branched into
the NBA when he signed a gangly UCLA grad named Reggie Miller.
In 1989, Tellem struck out on his own, taking Miller and his handful of other sports clients with him. In 2000, SFX Entertainment bought Tellem's firm, and soon, Tellem convinced his protégé Pelinka to join him at SFX.
At Michigan, sports law was not offered as a course through much of the 1990s, since the previous instructor, Beverley Pooley, had retired. In the
late '90s, a group of interested students lobbied to bring back the class.
"I realized," Clark says, "that sports law is an excellent pedagogical tool and excellent course to teach to think about law generally, even if you have no interest in working in the field. Sports puts unique pressure on the law and makes you think more deeply about the law."
Chitta Mallik, '00, was in the first sports law class Clark taught. Mallik was interested in pursuing a facet of sports law, possibly as an agent. Then,
Tellem came to speak to Clark's class.
"His speech and my individual conversation with him, even though it lasted only a few minutes, were really inspiring," Mallik says of Tellem. "He truly loves his job and had made such an impact on his clients. You meet so many people, especially lawyers, who really dislike their jobs. To be able to finally talk to sports lawyers who enjoyed their trade made me think, 'This is something I must continue to explore further. I need to make this my goal.'"
Mallik (fourth from left) celebrates the selection of his client, quarterback Cam Newton (rear center), as the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NFL draft. (Associated Press)
Mallik reached out to Pelinka, too, and was motivated by his descriptions of watching
clients grow into successful men who positively impacted their communities. Then, Mallik charted his own course: He spent one summer doing legal research and landing marketing deals for a sports and entertainment lawyer in his home state of Maryland; the next summer, he worked at Morgan Lewis in Washington, D.C.— which represented Major League Baseball.
After law school, he took a job at Latham & Watkins, where he worked on mergers and acquisitions and IPOs before moving on to Octagon, a large sports and entertainment agency, where he drafted and negotiated lucrative endorsement deals. In 2009, Mallik
was certified as an NFL agent, and now helps run the Football Division of Washington, D.C.– based Perennial Sports & Entertainment, along with his business partner Tony Paige, a former NFL standout and veteran NFL agent.
Today, Perennial represents more than 30 NFL players, with Paige and Mallik leading the way. Mallik currently serves as one of the NFL agents for Cam Newton, the former Auburn quarterback who was the No. 1 overall pick in the
2011 NFL Draft and went on to win offensive Rookie of the Year.
Mallik's trajectory follows the path that Clark likes to outline for his students.
"I really like to tell someone that to prepare for a career in sports law, you should prepare for a career as a good lawyer," Clark says. "Take Contracts. Take Trusts. Pick a firm where you have athletes and sports teams."
This year, Mallik will return to Clark's class to describe his experiences as a young agent.
"When I talk to people who want to break into the industry, I always say,
'The most important thing is to talk to people who are living your dream,'" Mallik says. "It was tough for me to meet highly successful agents because
of their schedules, but persistence is the key. Being able to talk to the true leaders in my industry gave me the raw inside look into the world that was instrumental in launching my career."